Inside Social Games publishes a monthly “Top 25” list of popular Facebook games based on number of monthly actives. Reviewing the May 2010 list got us to thinking: What is the magic formula that has made these Facebook games so popular? What draws these users in? What better way is there to find out than to play the games ourselves, so we split the games between us and started going down the list. Here is a sampling of my experience so far:

Pet SocietyWelcome to Pet Society

#2. Birthday Cards
I got off to a rough start. Number 2 on this list, Birthday Cards, is most definitely not a game. It’s an app for sharing birthday cards, or cards for any occasion even. Nifty, but not at all a game. I guess it only made the list because it uses Flash and has over 34 million monthly users.

#4. Café world
This game just makes me hungry. There is plenty of work to do (clicking—and waiting), but no real, actual, edible food to eat. How depressing. It is a static environment, but as I get money I can continue to add nicer chairs, tables, and stoves to my cafe. Oh, and I get to clean the stoves after I cook the food (by clicking them, of course). I’m not gonna lie, it is easy, and almost addicting, to keep cooking different dishes, because, well, I like food, and I’m much better at cooking here than in a real kitchen.

#6. Mafia Wars
This dashboard environment keeps tabs on how good a mobster I am. Things like Health, Energy, Stamina, and Experience are factors I need to be aware of. The basic gist of it is to keep pressing “Do Job” and advancing levels. So far I’ve gotten to fight people, perform random muggings and steal some cars. But then I lose a fight. Oh no: need more energy! So I wait. And then I’m good again, so I keep picking fights and advancing levels. This is a very interactive process with your fellow FB friends (and enemies), so there is the fun task of balancing who you piss off and who you want to keep on your side.

#8. Happy Aquarium
Pet Society
In case you haven’t guessed, this game takes place inside an aquarium. Little fish are floating around, and as you gain experience you can add new animals (and decorations!) to your tank. There are easy-to-follow directions with cool-looking fish, but to me the most appealing part of the game is the range of options available to the player. You can choose to train, mate or sell any given member of the aquarium. There is a whole training environment for your fish, and you can keep track of tricks learned. Additionally there is a cleanliness and hunger scale which keeps track of, well, cleanliness and hunger levels of the fish. Of the games I played, I was most impressed with Happy Aquarium’s style of play, though I found it far from addicting.

#10. Pet Society
I am a cute little cat named Bob. I have a pink bowtie on my forehead, and there is always a bug (flee, fly???) buzzing around my face. Makes me want to rip the furry little smile off my avatar’s face, because you just know that as a cat, there is no way I like that stupid bug being there. Three seconds into the game and I am already trying to find my way out of this lucid nightmare.

Anyway, despite feeling reprehensibly gay while playing this, there were a couple of redeeming qualities:

– With plenty of instructions and an endless amount of stuff to click on, there was some semblance of “depth” or at least variety to the game.
– There is an entire neighborhood to move around in. I liked the map perspective of everything as opposed to the typical static or dashboard environment I experienced in the other games; this kind of environment appeases my yearning for exploration.

So, what to do, what to do… I went fishing with some apples as bait–but didn’t catch anything–visited the beauty salon… (yawwwn)… However after half an hour or so of playing, I still didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t force myself to care enough to try any harder.

In most of these games, there is always plenty of stuff to buy–especially fake money. I am disturbed how shamelessly this “buy-fake-money-with-real-money” idea is promoted. But this concept is what made Zynga their millions, so I suppose as long as people are biting it is not going to go away. Also, the menu systems for these games were all very similar, despite being created by different companies. I’m not sure if this is due to Facebook’s SDK, or if there is just a general lack of creativity amongst Facebook game developers.

Pet Society“$150 USD–Best Value!” Are you FFing KIDDING ME???

So why are these games so viral? I can only come to three solid conclusions:

– Simplicity: These games do not require much depth of thought, so they are perfect for the masses. This is also where I feel the potential lies for something much better in the arena of Facebook / social networking games. Why can’t there be something more complex, thought-provoking and out of the norm? There should be!

– Friend interaction: This is the obvious key to Facebook’s gaming success. You can help your friends, they can help you, and you get to “see” your virtual friends all the time in your digital cafe or kingdom. Or, you can compete with them, or kill them even–if you are so inclined.

– Boredom factor. These games are a great time-filler. If none of your friends are posting anything on Facebook, you can at least fill up your boredom time (like, at work): creating a birthday card, cooking hamburgers, stealing a car, training a fish, or, hell, spending real money you don’t have on virtual money you don’t need to best your friends in an environment that doesn’t really exist. After all, an innovative way to waste money is exactly what our economy needs right now, isn’t it?

By the way the updated top 25 games for Facebook for June 2010 can be found here.

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